Each year I anticipate the holidays with venal glee.
It's a seasonal ritual of shrewd public relations that starts with Thanksgiving and ends with Epiphany: any company that ever has been—or hopes to be—favorably mentioned in a magazine coughs up a Christmas present for that magazine's editors. The practice may not be mandatory, but a good present goes a long way toward getting phone calls returned for the rest of the year.
At service magazines and style bibles, Christmas "prezzies" are considered a major job perk, especially among market editors who know not to switch jobs, schedule shoots, or otherwise be too far away from their desks during December. Traditionally, the fashion editor scores the most glamorous gifts and the editor-in-chief gets the priciest presents. But, for sheer volume, beauty loot beats all.
Back at my first beauty gig at Glamour in the early '90s, fur salons like Revillon and Maximillian were still sending seasonal notices ("Is it time to think about refurbishing your furs?") addressed to a long-departed predecessor, a reminder of that gone-forever golden era when Santa's bag brimmed with fur coats, television sets, and ten-speed bicycles for good little editors. By the time I became department head at another women's magazine, it no longer behooved the big advertisers to bribe me and, as my diary for that season shows, the cost of Christmas presents usually ran in inverse ratio to their ad budget.
My first present came before Thanksgiving: a gift certificate for dinner at a nice—but not great—restaurant on the Upper East Side, courtesy of the Mary Kay Corporation. Today's mail delivery yields only an Yves St. Laurent press release announcing its holiday makeup collection (a bit of news that arrives about four months too late for the lead time of any large-circ consumer magazine) and a Vidal Sassoon keychain intended to symbolize its "open door" invitation to a renovated salon. I toss it into a drawer where I've already got standing invitations from 28 other salons.
Bliss, Manhattan's achingly chic day spa, calls for faxed permission to reproduce a short piece we published about them; I grant permission gladly, even though the blurb is inaccurate because this magazine's format means we write those things almost six months in advance.
Our editorial staff has a "progress report" meeting scheduled for 10:30 a.m.—the time most editors make it to their desks. From 10:35 until 10:47, I and a few other souls sit in the conference room exchanging pleasantries until an assistant editor enters to announce that today's meeting is canceled because the deputy editor is out sick. I go back to my office.
The copy editor, who's more or less in charge of production and trafficking, appears in my doorway and says she thinks we should have the meeting anyway. She herds the rest of the staff together. I troop back to the conference room.
After a few minutes, the copy editor appears and announces that the meeting is canceled. Too many people out sick.
It's now noon.
Finally, things are starting to pick up. Today's haul: A special-edition flaçon of Thierry Mugler's Angel perfume (selling for $500 at Saks), a coffret of chocolates from Maison du Chocolat, a certificate for a complimentary manicure and pedicure at the Peter Coppola Salon (a neat way to promote a manicurist who recently defected from Frédéric Fekkai), and a Christmas card from a relentless freelance writer in Texas who's notorious for her mass mailings to magazine editors—including the ones, like me, who never give her any work.
I have a working breakfast at Michael's with the new public relations person at Escada Beauté.
First we discuss her ridiculously handsome boss, then we get down to business: I recite a list of stories I'm planning; she takes notes so that she can come up with ways for her company to be mentioned in our magazine; then she picks up the check. Whereupon I head off to work carrying an Escada shopping bag containing Escada scented shower gel, a full-sized Escada cologne, a three-in-one pack of mini Escada colognes, and an Escada T-shirt.
As I emerge from the elevator I hear a hearty "Ho-ho-ho!" and see that the first of my many, many Santas is waiting for me in the reception area.
This one wears a blue velvet Santa costume with the logo of Philosophy cosmetics across on the back and carries a coordinating blue velvet bag, which he immediately hands to me. "Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!" he says again, before he disappears down the elevator bank, leaving me with the company's Holiday Blues bath gel, a relaxation CD, a paperback about angels, a T-shirt urging me to "believe in miracles" in lower-case type, notice of a $25 donation made in my name to the "Make a Wish" foundation, a star-shaped box of candy, and a big rock chiseled with the word "IMAGINE."
"Straight on through Egyptian. They're serving coffee in the Temple of Dendur," says the Met volunteer without checking my ID. All around her, men in hard hats and tool belts are putting up scaffolding for tonight's "Party of the Year."
Standing next to the sarcophagus at the top of the stairs leading to the Costume Institute, John Galliano, the Christian Dior designer, is giving a video interview in English. At the bottom of the stairs, Gianfranco Ferré, the Christian Dior designer ousted to make way for Galliano, is giving a video interview in French. "Dior . . . élégance . . . élégance . . . Dior" is all I can make out over the chaos of the press preview. Marc Bohan, the Christian Dior designer ousted to make way for Ferré, is inside, being interviewed in French. "Dior . . . élégance . . . élégance . . . Dior," I hear again.
Galliano is definitely the draw. On Friday, Women's Wear Daily reported the defection of a key staff member to Chanel. But Galliano looks unperturbed. "Dior . . . energy! Energy . . . Dior!" he practically shouts at the interviewers mobbing him.
While they wait for their go at Galliano, five more video crews work the main exhibition space. One is reduced to taping a former fashion columnist who is toting a freebie that spells F-E-N-D-I in big letters. Bill Cunningham from The New York Times is scowling and not taking any pictures. A museum volunteer trills "Aren't you thrilled?" at Harold Koda, one of the show's curators. He acts as if he hasn't heard her and leans over to two young men, nods toward the stairs, and solemnly says "That's Mr. Ferré."
Inside, docents of a certain age peer at the New Look ballgowns in the vitrines and reminisce about their own days wearing Dior dresses with handspan waists. "What's his name?" says one as she points to Ferré, now giving an interview in Italian.
Outside, a bewildered gentleman of a certain age watches Galliano, who is wearing an impeccably tailored double-breasted suit and a black eyelet du rag. "Who's that new one now?" he asks his young male companion.
"Galliano!" comes the snorted reply.
Clutching my press packet and fighting my way out, I watch the information kiosk and the two circular benches in the center of the museum's Great Hall being turned into giant pin cushions. Besides being covered with gray-and-white striped fabric, a Dior signature, each "cushion" sports about a dozen "pins" in the form of Dior dresses impaled on long steel rods. Decked out in a wasp-waisted vintage Dior, Katell le Bourhis, a member of the Costume Institute's previous curatorial staff, directs dispersal of 10,000 lilies of the valley, Dior's signature flower. A flustered volunteer, trying to catch le Bourhis's simultaneous French-into-English-back-to-French translations of herself, crashes into me. After looking me up and down, and spotting no lilies of the valley on my person, she blurts, "Oh, you must be a reporter!"
Out at the reception area I spy bottles of Veuve Cliquot champagne from the John Sahag salon for almost everyone on staff.
Is this an oversight? Or does he hate me? Did somebody misquote him? Did some flunky or freelancer invoke my name to score freebies from his salon? Did he hate the last photo session we did together?
I will never know because, according to magazine etiquette probably modeled on Manchu practices in the Forbidden City, it is punishably uncouth to come right out and ask.
I also realize that I have not received an invitation to Chanel's twice-a-year sample sale. "They're not having it this year," an in-the-loop colleague at another magazine authoritatively informs me, "because they're moving their boutique."
Traditionally, the Sale is an intense morning. No matter how early I arrive, at least two dozen editors and stylists are ahead of me. No one talks. No one makes eye contact. By the time the doors open at 8:30 a.m., the two dozen people ahead of me have turned into two hundred. Last time, a new Condé Nast publisher cut in front of me with enough gusto to knock off my backpack, which landed near the cap-toed, Chanel-shod feet of a 40-year-old beauty editor who promptly elbowed me in the solar plexus when I went to retrieve it. One Page Six socialite gatecrashed and had to be ejected by a Chanel vice president. The last I saw of her, she was shouting, "But I'm a good customer!" as she was steered toward the exit.
At the Neutrogena shindig at the National Academy of Sciences, someone has spent what looks to be the equivalent of an associate editor's annual salary on the flowers. Enormous arrangements explode in each fireplace, garlands of greens swathe the mantels, even the Darwin outside the dining room wears a wreath around his neck. No generic greenery for this crowd. Each arrangement on each luncheon table sprouts itty-bitty bars of Neutrogena soap where a more déclassé florist might have filled in with baby's breath.
Per custom, the ladies of the beauty press are dispersed over several circular tables. The most prestigious editors sit next to the highest corporate honchos, imported for the occasion from the company's California headquarters. After cold salmon and avocado, we are served white chocolate mousse garnished with a cookie replicating the Neutrogena logo right down to the little serifs on each letter. Then we listen to presentations of a new eye cream and yet another Healthy Skin spinoff. After that comes the customary speech about "corporate synergy" and the joys of being owned by Johnson & Johnson.
Our goody bags contain vintage Bakelite bracelets to remind us of the amber color of Neutrogena soap. We also get a book about Bakelite jewelry and are told that its author hand-picked our bracelets.
Everyone likes her bracelet.
Everyone agrees mine is awful.
Back to the salt mines. I jump in a town car and arrive at my office only to discover its floor, empty when I left, once again obscured by gift boxes and shopping bags. Today, Clarins sends a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in a silver-plated champagne cooler. Annick Goutal sends a book on French country architecture. Redken announces that it has made a donation in my name to the AIDS Relief Fund for Beauty Professionals. Cosmair, the U.S. division of the L'Oréal Group, sends an ugly wreath covered with dried roses. Gale Hayman sends a cosmetics bag in faux leopard, her trademark. Biotherm sends a set of its makeup brushes. Erno Lazlo sends a Rolodex pocket organizer. The Van Michael Salon in Atlanta sends a bottle of chardonnay and a baseball cap embroidered with the salon's logo, then blows its brownie points by getting me mixed up with an editor at another magazine and addressing the card to Mary Lisa Gavenas-Gabor.
All morning I open gifts.
In the afternoon, I go to the Clarins' offices to discuss an advertisement that their vice-president wants me to write. Usually she hires editors or well-connected freelancers for these gigs. Once the project is over, those selfsame members of the press tend to remain very familiar with Clarins' product line.
The company is also notoriously generous with "personal-use product." Mention that you are about to go on vacation and a shopping bag stuffed with Clarins sun protection and self-tanners magically appears on your desk within the hour.
The VP tells me that this project, an ad for self-tanners slated for Marie Claire and Elle, is "not a conflict of interest" because she has no plans to run it in the magazine I work for.
Wrapping in furoshiki is very big with the beauty crowd this Christmas. I'm getting plenty of practice, but today I find myself scissoring through the fabric so I can get to the presents.
In the spirit of the season, one salon chain overlooks the fact that we've exchanged harsh words and sends a vase, which cost them $50 at Barneys, something I know because they left the pricetag on the bottom.
Still, a sigh escapes me when, on my way out to lunch, I see that the reception area is flooded with big Manolo Blahnik shopping bags addressed to the fashion editors.
When I walk in, the production staff is eating Krispy Kremes sent as a thank you by a salon that got a favorable mention in one of our other magazines.
Flowers are the more customary thank you. Editorial mentions of any size earn the editor, at the very least, a bouquet from the grateful manufacturer. What else it's worth is calibrated according to both the magazine's prestige and the manufacturer's. Appropriate appreciations being a pricey addition to an editor's orchid collection, or a $1,000 gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue (dispatched directly to an editor's home in the interest of discretion).
The acknowledgement that most impressed me went from a day spa owner to a Condé Nast editor whose mention launched that establishment into the land-office business that it's enjoyed ever since. "I got her a pair of Angela Pintaldi emerald earrings," the spa owner told me one day as she dyed my eyelashes (a service that's supposed to be illegal in New York), "I thought they'd look great against her fair skin. Besides, I could get them at a discount."
After our 11 a.m. meeting, the magazine's editor-in-chief takes the staff out for a holiday lunch. I get out of it by saying I have too much work. So does my counterpart in the fashion department. The magazine's style director actually wants to go, but the editor-in-chief didn't tell her where the lunch is.
Chanel sends me a red leather Filofax cover with big linked C's on its cover. The box includes a note—en français—saying that this year's gift cannot be exchanged or refunded at a Chanel boutique. Translation: Many editors will be très malheureuses.
Clinique, Donna Karan, Estée Lauder, Max Factor, and Prescriptives haven't sent anything, but from here on out, it can only wind down. I compare notes with a beauty editor at Gruner & Jahr. She hasn't gotten anything from Prescriptives either. "But I made the Prada list this year," she says, referring to a New York PR company notorious for making a list of who's been naughty and who's been nice and dispensing Prada presents accordingly. "I got a Prada tote, which I'm exchanging," she says happily. Wine features prominently on her list too: "Good booze—it'll keep my editor happy."
This year, New York is in the throes of Tickle-Me Elmo fever. Coming out of an appointment at the Revlon offices on Madison Avenue, I spot a man lurking in back of F.A.O. Schwarz whispering "Elmo! Elmo!" and flashing an Elmo in pristine packaging underneath his overcoat.
At this morning's update meeting, the assistant fashion features editor informs me that Cartier's has a Tickle-Me Elmo draped in diamonds in a Fifth Avenue window. "If you buy $1 million worth of merchandise you get a free Tickle-Me Elmo thrown in and Santa will deliver it to you on Christmas morning."
"It's so unfair! We barely get anything!" whines the deputy editor, whose ears perked up at the mention of 'free'."
"Mary Lisa is not getting a million-dollar necklace delivered on Christmas morning," my assistant editor dutifully explains. I reassure my assembled colleagues by saying that Cartier usually sends some very nice monogrammed stationery.
"Well, at the last place I worked, the beauty editor got a Cartier watch!" the deputy editor retorts, in a tone implying that I must be a total loser to not even score a ring.
Ignoring the fact that magazines are already well into assigning summer stories, I get a pitch from announcing "Cosmetic Surgery à Deux—The Ultimate Valentine's Gift . . . It's the vacation that lasts 15 years!"
Trying to come up with a Christmas present for my assistant, who usually gets cheaper versions of the same stuff I get, I go to Bulgari and buy a pair of silver cufflinks for those French-cuffed shirts she insists on wearing. Congratulating myself on my integrity—I got no editorial discount and made no attempt to expense this—I see her face light up when she spots the Bulgari gift wrap.
Then I watch it fall when she realizes she only got cufflinks.
Too bad. I had them monogrammed, now she can't take them back.
This is also the day that the beauty department distributes personalized goody bags to the rest of the staff. The chain-smoking, curly-haired photo editor gets room spray and hair balm. The trendy girls in the art department get the garish nail polishes. Guaranteeing that all my calls will get through and none of my own presents will be rerouted to the wrong floor, I give the magazine's receptionists Santa's blue-velvet sack, stuffed with all the lipstick, eye shadow, pencils, and perfume it will hold.
The deputy editor gets bath and body products, but not as many as she would have gotten before she told me about that other editor's Cartier watch.
I skip most of the Scrooge-like senior staff. Let them buy their own nail polish.
A four-foot-long mailing tube arrives by special messenger. After a couple of minutes of clawing through packing materials, I uncover . . . a stick of man's sports deodorant.
Since the logic of sending this to a woman's magazine escapes me, I toss it in the bin of products destined for the beauty closet, the locked-door stash of leftovers that every woman's magazine has somewhere on its premises. Around the office, much clout derives from my status as keeper of the closet, and dispensation of products is considered one of this job's biggest perks. (Every magazine may have a fashion closet too, but designers generally get back their fur coats and cashmere sweaters unless an irresistible piece gets "lost on the shoot.")
When someone on the magazine staff has a birthday or baby, the beauty department produces a goody bag filled with products from the closet. At least once a year, products that can't be used for presents—the pastel lipstick shades that no one in New York wears, the hideous eyeshadows, the foundations that are already starting to separate, the mass-market products that magazine editors are too snooty to try—are sold for charity. The staff gets a crack at buying them for prices from about 50 cents to $5 and, like the legendarily regifted Christmas fruitcake, they eventually end up rewrapped as presents for mother-in-laws, nannies, babysitters, or roommates.
I go to work. I open presents. I grind out thank-you notes. I go home.
Gifts are still straggling in. A department store and nail polish company chip in together to send a gardenia plant with a note that reads, "May the spirit of the season fill you with joy from the tips of your fingers to the twinkle in your toes." Simultaneously, they send a small jar of caviar with a shell spoon and an invitation to a spa pedicure.
It's finally over.
An informal survey of my colleagues confirms that, this year, Tiffany's was the most popular place to buy a beauty editor's gift. Since I conspicuously failed to make the Prada list or score a Cartier watch, the award for the non-beauty gift with the highest trade-in value goes to a new makeup line that sent a sweater from its parent company, which I promptly exchanged for a $490 store credit.
My season tally includes eight candles, eight donations in my name to assorted charitable causes not of my choosing, seven scarves, six bottles of wine (not including the champagne from Clarins, Guerlain, and La Prairie), six bottles of perfume, five boxes of chocolates, four plants (three of which are narcissus), four coffee-table books, three bathrobes, three shirts with—alas—salon logos embroidered on them, three silver purse mirrors with—alas—the company logo engraved on the back, two pairs of men's socks, two pens from Tiffany's, two silver purse mirrors not spoiled by salon logos, two videos of Doris Day in Pillow Talk from two different companies, two sets of movie passes, a Christian Dior pin, Elsa Peretti necklace, Gaultier shirt, Givenchy wallet, Gucci ashtray, Oscar de la Renta pillow, Ralph Lauren teddy bear, plus flashlights, cufflinks, keychains, mugs, cashmere slippers, and pajamas that now have my own monogram on them.
The last present arrives: Aveda's wishes for "a year of peace, wellness, and rejuvenation" along with a gift certificate for any spa service I desire.
I toss it in the drawer with all the others.
Mary Lisa Gavenas, who bid a fond farewell to beauty editing and a somewhat sadder farewell to its perks, is the author of Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America's Billion-Dollar Beauty Industry published by Simon & Schuster.